DID THE U.S. GOVERNMENT -- in the shape of the Atomic Energy Commission -- knowingly expose people and animals to radiation injury from nuclear tests in the 1950s and 1960s? And later, when evidence of death and disease began to appear, was it suppressed to protect the nuclear weapons testing program? If a congressional report issued this week by the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations is correct in its essentials, the answer to both questions is yes.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, 223 nuclear test shots were conducted above ground near the Nevada-Utah border. Two of the tests, in the spring of 1953, released particularly large amounts of fallout. Shortly thereafter, deaths and abnormalities began to appear in the sheep that had grazed in the area. Reportedly, an astonishing 25 percent of the new-born lambs that had been exposed to the radiation in utero died, as did a large fraction of the ewes.

After studying the damage, the AEC concluded that "it is evident that radioactivity from atomic tests was not responsible" for what happened to the sheep. It then quickly slapped secret classifications on all of its materials, keeping them inaccessible for years. Recent studies indicate that the commission reached its conclusion by choosing to ignore the major source of radiation exposure in its calculations. In last year's testimony, the director of the National Institutes of Health agreed that "it would have been extremely difficult, probably impossible, to conclude that radiation did not at least contribute to the cause of death of the sheep."

Essentially the same pattern shows up in the damage done to people, except that the human radiation injuries did not show up until years later as a still uncertain excess of thyroid cancers and leukemia. People who lived in the area were never warned about the tests, evacuated or told to take precautions. The AEC seemed concerned above all else with safeguarding the weapons testing program -- not the public health. When the U.S. Public Health Service recommended a full study of the source of leukemia deaths, the AEC recommended against it. An AEC memo stated that the study would pose "problems" for the commission, namely: "a) adverse public reaction; (b) law suits; and (c) jeopardizing the programs at the Nevada Test Site."

Much has changed since then. The AEC is gone, and its successor, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, conducts much of its business in full public view. But the stark conflict of interest -- dual responsibility for the military uses of atomic energy and for the protection of public health from radiation damage -- largely persists. Three-quarters of the government's research on the biological effects of radiation is funded by the Department of Energy and Defense and by the NRC. Only 20 percent is allocated by the health agencies. It may take years to find a reasonably fair way to compensate the victims of this ugly episode. Meanwhile, at the very least, institutional conflicts like this one, from which the public interest invariably loses, need to be fixed.